When the power goes out, empty the refrigerator and put the perishables in a cooler full of ice. Assume that the bills weren’t paid and don’t ask questions. Light candles and do not speak. Time your showers, keep them short, ignore that they’re cold. When there isn’t enough food for everyone some nights, drink water to silence the hunger. Do your homework, go to bed. Take the foreclosure letters from the mail, put them in Dad’s briefcase, pretend you didn’t see them. When Mom is sad, hide the books. When Mom looks tired, hide the books. When Mom gets angry, hide the books, every time. You hide them because you know that she’ll look for them. Because you know that there is no money, but Dad bought them anyway. For you, he says. And once everything is calm again, read.
You grew up with these as your principal rules. You followed every one except for the rule about words. You weren’t supposed to have them, read them, want them, or write them. Mom said words took you away from school, took you away from work, took you away from what you were supposed to be doing. But words were the one thing that there was always more of. Even if you had to pay for them they could feed you over and over again. Words made you forget you were hungry and words made you forget that no one was smiling. Reading was your first rebellion.
Dad was the one who taught you to say no. He comes from white trash, small town, no stoplights, and he taught you six things. One, when you get punched, it will always be from behind. Two, when you get grabbed, you pull their hair, use your elbows, your teeth, your two bare hands. Three, you don’t have to grow up to be like your parents. You are not destined to be your mother’s sadness. You were not born to be your father’s anger. Don’t you dare resign yourself to something that was never meant to belong to you. Four, you can beat them as long as you use your words. Books will teach you more than you could ever learn on your own. They can call you whatever names they want, but they can never call you stupid if you read. If you write, you can record everything you ever endured and show them what it’s like to be you. You can win, he said, as long as you always use your words. Don’t let anyone stop you from getting out, getting away, finding a way. As long as you always use your words. Five, when the refrigerator dies, put everything fresh in a tub of ice and pray that it lasts. Six, when you don’t feel okay anymore, read.
These days you don’t have to forget the hunger or hide the books, but you still use your words. You don’t read to escape anymore; you read to learn about people who are nothing like you. You read to learn about people who will lead lives and have problems that you will never experience. Maybe it’s just another opportunity to let someone’s words make you feel whatever they so choose, make you feel something new. These days, you no longer write to tell a smart story. Instead, you write stories about people that are almost like you. Girls who hide paintings, keep secrets from their moms, find solace in silence, not speaking. Boys with arms covered in moles, knuckles laced with scars, eyelids printed with stories.
These days, you’ve learned to write poems that, unlike your stories, are almost always about you, because it’s easier to be self-centered when you’re not confined to grammatical structure. It seems so much more pretentious when you are trapped within a sentence that is intended to make sense. You use repetition, never hold back, always name names, and, in the end, feel more hurt than helped. These days you listen to every piece of writing read out loud that you can, as long as it’s read with heart. You want the words to feel like dirt under your nails and you want every moment to feel like a promise that you’re going to be okay. But these days, you still use my words as a defense. You’re still afraid to let them see that you’re weak. You’re still afraid that they’ll call you stupid. You’re still afraid that you’ll never beat them. You still use your words to try and win.